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My Empire of Dirt

After the red leaf and the gold have gone,
Brought down by the wind, then by hammering rain
Bruised and discolored, when October’s flame
Goes blue to guttering in the cusp, this land
Sinks deeper into silence, darker into shade.
There is a knowledge in the look of things,
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.

Now I can see certain simplicities
In the darkening rust and tarnish of time,
And say over the certain simplicities,
The running water and the standing stone,
The yellow haze of the willow and the black
Smoke of the elm, the silver, silent light
Where suddenly, readying toward nightfall,
The sumac’s candelabrum darkly flames.
And I speak to you now with the land’s voice,
It is the cold, wild land that says to you
A knowledge glimmers in the sleep of things:
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.

~ Howard Nemerov, American Poet

There is so much beauty in the language of this poem. The words carry such solid wisdom.

We are in this season. The dazzling ceremony of autumn’s colors has ended. The trees have lost their coats of green and the fading leaves are no longer pallets of paint on the ground around us. Winter has arrived.

“There is knowledge in the look of things,” Nemerov writes. “Now I can see certain simplicities / in the darkening rust and tarnish of time.”

What captivating images those lines offer. As winter pares down the landscape and gives us only the skeleton and the shell of nature’s glory, we are invited to reflect on and to process our lives and all of life.

Wintertime says prepare for the cold. Store up. Be still. Stay warm. It asks, “How will you manage the barrenness? What will you learn?”

“There is knowledge in the look of things.”

In the quiet chill of winter, in the bleak surroundings in which we move and live, we are given a chance to “see certain simplicities / in the darkening rust and tarnish of time.” What is real to us? What is of value? Who am I now and where am I going; or as writer Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The pull toward materialism in our day, to crave and obsess over things, to be consumed with acquiring, holding on to our toys and wanting more of them, being enamored with wealth and ownership, keeps us blind to winter’s lessons. We miss the chance to survey our own life and see, stripped of its outward show, what it really means.

I love that last great song from Johnny Cash where he writes about his life as a drug addict. It’s a harsh, brutal song. All the pain of those lost years can be heard in his weak voice straining to warn and to instruct.

“What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt.”

That takes us to Nemerov’s great line: “Now I can see certain simplicities.”

That seems to be my search these days and my purpose. To see what truly matters underneath all the pretty things and the gaudy display of the temporary and the transient and the soon to be gone.

I am looking for substance. For something that endures. Something that lasts and remains when all the perishables and the substitutes have toned down and washed out and vanished.

I am feeling my way toward those certain simplicities. I know what they are. Winter has shown me.

© 2012 Timothy Moody


  1. Wow, Timothy. This is beautiful. Your prose matches the poetry perfectly.

  2. Thank you, Judy. Your comment has made my day! And makes the effort of these essays worth it! Thanks for visiting my blog.


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